Introducing the Dopamine Counter

No one’s doing a better job of connecting brain science with horsemanship in an innovative, easy-to-grasp, fashion than West Taylor.

West Taylor works with challenging horse

Recently, Taylor released this video of his work with a challenging horse from Colorado. Even by horsemanship video standards, “Flagging on the Fence: Downregulating a Nervous Horse” is long and protracted. But if you’re interested in seeing how a horse can change over the course of 90 minutes and in learning through the narration of Taylor’s science-supported commentary, it’s time well spent.

The video introduces a fun, new learning tool: the Dopamine Counter.

Read more about the neurochemical dopamine here. 

At the beginning of the video, Taylor has the horse tied to a sturdy corral post with several feet of slack in the rope. The goal is to teach the mare to respond to his cue of tapping one side of her haunches or another, to move her hind end left or right.

West Taylor at the Best Horse Practices Summit

At first, it’s a struggle. Taylor taps her hind end repeatedly while clucking. Eventually and without much relaxation, she moves away from his pressure. Taylor responds by leaving her be and waiting. After several seconds, she lowers her head and licks and chews. Ding, ding, ding goes the Dopamine Counter.

If we were super nit-picky about the science, we could say the Dopamine Counter is a stretch. Of course, we don’t know that dopamine is being released in the brain at any precise moment. To do that, we’d have to have some pretty sophisticated equipment and serious expertise in that corral. But licking, chewing, and head lowering are generally associated with dopamine releases, says Dr. Steve Peters, a neuropsychologist at Intermountain Health and co-author of the book, Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

Taylor, owner of Wild West Mustang Ranch, has consulted extensively with Peters. Together, they have conducted Horse Brain Science Seminars. Typically, these offerings feature Peters’ academic presentations paired with Taylor’s work with horses in an arena.

We talked with Taylor about the mare’s progress through the video:

“At first, you can see that she’s barely finding the cue,” said Taylor. “She could barely complete my request, let alone calmly. I like to work toward a point where she is almost cueing herself. In the video, she’s headed there, for sure.”

Micah Fink, founder of Heroes and Horses

Taylor continues:

“Ultimately, what I want horses to do is relax within the cue (not just when the pressure is released). I like to work towards precision, without fear or too much energy. I want them to do something softly and confidently and to have calmness within the cue.”

Beginning next month, Taylor will start several mustangs for the Heroes and Horses. The Montana-based non-profit helps veterans reintegrate after their service by providing a free program in the Montana wilderness, teaching horsemanship, and optimizing the benefits of the horse-human connection.

The horses, all geldings, will come from the Bureau of Land Management facility in Axtel, Utah.

Links for Junior Scientists & Curiosity Hogs

We’d like to think that BestHorsePractices can point you to better sources than, say, your average Facebook newsfeed.

Here are several interesting, science-related articles for your consideration. They are not necessarily horse-y, but if you’re a lifelong learner, constantly curious and gravitating to new insights, I think you’ll enjoy them.

Amy Skinner

Amy Skinner, an incoming member of the Best Horse Practices Summit steering committee, said recently:

“I’m currently taking all my beliefs out of their dusty boxes and shaking them out, seeing what’s valuable and examining why I kept them in the first place. I’m willing to toss out anything that is no longer true or doesn’t serve me. Or I may hold onto it while I decide if I know why I believed it in the first place.

I encourage all you to do the same. Don’t believe anything ‘just because.’ Figure out why. If it no longer belongs, toss it out. Don’t rush to fill it back up, but maybe leave it open for a while and watch the world. Imagine the difference in our interactions with others after we clean out.”

Happy reading!

Maddy Butcher, Director, Best Horse Practices Summit

Read this abstract in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science on dominance and leadership.

Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise is based on his research of how horses live in the wild. Check out the concept here. 

Durango vet explores spiritual bonds of animals. A KSJD radio interview. 

Photo by Dr. Karlene Strange

Listen to Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellman on “Defending Science in a Post-Truth Era”

Sheep can recognize human faces. Research at the University of Cambridge.

New brain imaging technology could provide insight for everything from Alzheimer’s detection to mental health concerns. Check out the developments at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Exploring the fascinating inner lives of animals, starting with dogs. In an MRI machine. Really. Read the book review of “What It’s Like to be a Dog”

A quick, compelling bit on Yellowstone research on wolves, trees, and antelope. They’re all connected! From our friends at On Pasture, read more. 

Researcher in Yellowstone

Thanks, Patagonia. Move over, Carhartt

You could make the argument that those of us working outside and with animals have greater connections with those animals and the land than those who simply play outside (i.e., outdoor recreationalists). We horse owners, therefore, might well be happy consumers of clothing made by a company prioritizing good treatment of land and animals (an idea that the industry sometimes calls ‘ethical clothing’). We might also welcome a fresh alternative to the same-ol’, same-ol’ from century-old clothing companies like Dickies, Wrangler, and Carhartt.

All of which is one way of saying:

Thank You, Patagonia!


Move over, Carhartt!

Earlier this month, Patagonia unveiled its WorkWear line. The clothing is made with a blend of Iron Forge hemp, organic cotton, and recycled polyester. In tests, the fabric was 25 percent tougher than the cotton duck canvas in Carhartt jackets. Yet it’s deceivingly soft and doesn’t require that “Forgive me while I walk around in a cardboard box” break-in period.

WorkWear, like all Patagonia products, comes with researchable background information on how its production impacted the planet and the people who made it. Some say the company’s Footprint Chronicles are leading the entire industry to be more sustainable, accountable, and transparent.

We visited with Patagonia folks earlier this year to learn about the new line, its origins, and what the California company – more often associated with rock climbers and surfers – has planned for outfitting our community:

  • “Iron Forge” is a reference to the smithing done by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and his rock climbing comrades back when his fledgling company was literally forging climbing equipment in a tin shed (now called the “Tin Shed”) in Ventura, California.
  • Designing and crafting work clothes isn’t a big leap from a standards or cultural perspective at Patagonia, said business unit director Ed Auman, “this is not ‘work inspired. It’s been in our DNA.”

Thankfully, the women’s WorkWear line is not simply the men’s version recut with wider hips and added pink buttons.

The Iron Forge Hemp Canvas Barn Coat is tough, warm, and more feminine than typical barn coats. It comes in Coriander Brown, a warm, yellow-brown with cream stitching and is lined with Thermogreen insulation and silky, deep orange polyester. There are five pockets, including an inside, zipped chest pocket for valuables.

My favorite features:

  • Oversized pull on the zipper makes it easy to zip up and down with cold fingers and/or gloves
  • Side cinch straps with buckles give it a feminine silhouette and are useful for custom fitting
  • Slick lining makes layering easy
  • Hemp blend sheds hay, shavings, etc.
  • Hem length is not too short that drafts come up your backside, not too long to for riding, mucking stalls, shoveling, etc. Falls at the hip.
  • Two distinct snap closures at the sleeve mean you can pull sleeves over or off your wrist depending on your needs (using a hand tool or covering your wrists for warmth).

Coming to the Best Horse Practices Summit? You’ll see our presenters and ambassadors outfitted with these WorkWear items:

Women’s Iron Forge Hemp Barn Coats

Men’s and Women’s Farrier Shirts

Men’s Barn Coats

Men’s Ranch Jackets

Read more about Patagonia’s outfitting the Best Horse Practices Summit outfitting here.

Whoa Podcast Features Summit

We had a great time talking with John Harrer, the host of Whoa Podcast, a popular podcast about horses and horsemanship.

Maddy Butcher was joined by Dr. Steve Peters in talking about the upcoming Best Horse Practices Summit, the development of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, and the new site, HorseHead: Brain Science to Improve Your Horse Work.

Check it out here.

Dorrance Protégés Join Summit Roster

Along with powerful academic and arena presentations, the Best Horse Practices Summit, October 8-10 in Durango, Colorado, will now offer an opportunity to hear from esteemed protégés of Bill and Tom Dorrance. The brothers are widely admired as pioneers of the superior, more mindful horsemanship we see practiced nowadays.

Randy Rieman and Bryan Neubert will join us in Durango for a very special evening, Celebrating the Dorrance Legacy. For Rieman and the Neuberts, it will be a relaxed dinnertime chat at the luxurious Strater Hotel Theater. For us listeners, it will be a night to remember where we can lean in and savor their memories.

Register now.

The BHP Summit is shaping up to be an impressive two-and-a-half days of learning to improve riding and horsemanship. For

Bryan Neubert

a limited time, the Summit organizers are offering a Bring 3, Get in Free!” incentive. When four attendees register and identify each other as part of the incentive, one will be refunded in full.

Rieman and Neubert spent many seasons with the Dorrances and attribute their successes to Bill and Tom’s tutelage.

Neubert and Rieman travel nationally and internationally as clinicians and colt starters. Rieman is also a master storyteller and a regular presenter at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Kate Neubert focuses on young performance horses and this year competed at the Road to the Horse event in Kentucky.

Amy Skinner, another young and talented horsewoman who will be coming to Durango, was thrilled to hear about the addition of the Dorrance Legacy evening to the program.

“The Dorrances worked on a refined feel that focused on what the horse was about to do, then either confirming or redirecting it.  That makes for a more relaxed horse, which, in turn, fosters a better relationship between the horse and rider.  It’s an approach that benefits riders of all disciplines.

Randy Rieman

“It wasn’t just about horsemanship for these men. It was about a better way of life. For those of us who want to dig a little deeper into our relationships with horses, hearing from Dorrance students will be an unbelievable opportunity.”

Skinner runs Essence Horsemanship and starts colts under Jim Thomas at the Bar T Ranch in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Dr. Steve Peters, who with Martin Black will present a BHPS session on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, said the Dorrance Legacy addition was a perfect fit for the conference.

“When Martin and I first started working on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, we looked at giving the horse enough time to ensure optimal learning and to its receiving of dopamine reinforcement.  Martin, who also worked with Tom Dorrance, would regale me with stories of Dorrance’s grasp of what we now know to be the neurochemical makeup of the horse.

Kate Neubert

“It seems Tom was a master at dialing up the horse’s arousal or dialing down its anxiety as needed.  Although I never met him, I am convinced that he was truly a great equine behavioral neurologist,” said Peters.

Register now.

2017 presenters include:

  • Wendy Williams, author of the best-selling The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, will give the keynote address.
  • Dr. Robert Bowker, former director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University.
  • Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, German veterinarian, rider, and author of the best-selling book, Tug of War: Classical versus Modern Dressage.
  • Dr. Sheryl King is a popular international presenter on equine behavior.
  • Warwick Schiller, NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) Reserve World Champion and represented Australia in reining at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. He tours internationally and has a popular video subscription.
  • Jim Thomas runs Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He has started scores of BLM wild horses and competed in multiple Extreme Mustang Makeovers.
  • Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black of Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

Additional Summit offerings:

  • Fresh, fine dining Strater Hotel meals
  • Meet-and-greet receptions
  • Autograph sessions
  • Trade Show
  • Rider Fitness workout and core fitness elective with David Stickler
  • Post-BHP Summit field trip to visit a wild horse herd in nearby Spring Creek Basin.

The Best Horse Practices Summit is a Colorado 501 (c) (3) non profit corporation with a five member board of directors and nine member steering committee. Its goal is to advance ideas to improve the horse-human connection.

See you in Durango this October!


Horse Head Coming Soon!

Next week, we’ll debut an exciting new website for horse owners and riders.

Horse Head will provide features on equine brain science and how it relates to our horsemanship and horse-human interactions.

The new site is a collaboration between Dr. Steve Peters, a clinical neuropsychologist and co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, and Maddy Butcher, founder of BestHorsePractices and director of the Best Horse Practices Summit.

Peters and Butcher met years ago over a horse brain. Really. Peters was visiting coastal Maine to present a lecture on horse brain function as part of a Martin Black clinic. Butcher was reporting on the topic for her website, NickerNews.

In 2011, Peters and Black published the book, Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

“With Horse Head, we want to promote the application of horse brain science, consider and support the horses’ best interests, and optimize the horse-human interaction. We can apply what we know in order to get the best outcomes possible for the horses and for the humans,” said Peters, who specializes in dementia, is board certified, and runs the Memory Clinic at Intermountain Health in American Fork, Utah.

Added Butcher: “We would like Horse Head to be a resource for those owners and riders who crave great, science-oriented articles. These pieces will take complicated topics – brain function, neurochemistry, etc. – and relate them in readily applicable manner. We love that more and more riders recognize that licking and chewing is a manifestation of a change in the horse’s nervous system. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to talk about.”

Horse Head is the sixth website established by Butcher, whose Cayuse Communications includes NickerNews, NickerNewsBlog, BestHorsePractices, ColoradoOutsider, and UtahOutsider. She also contributes to Eclectic Horseman and High Country News.

Peters, Butcher, and friends

Downregulation in practice

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western at Jim Thomas’ Bar T Ranch. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others. She

Amy Skinner, Dr. Steve Peters, and a horse brain

heads to Maine next month to teach lessons.

Recently, Skinner attended the Healthy Horse Seminar which featured Dr. Steve Peters. She writes about applying what she learned to her work.

She writes:

It’s a very exciting time in the horse world right now. There’s more information available to the layman than ever.  We have a better understanding of the horse physically and mentally, and with Evidence-Based Horsemanship, it seems like we literally have an operations manual with a scientific approach to the horse’s brain.

As a trainer, all this new science-y information swirled around in my head and I looked for ways to apply it. When Dr. Steve Peters talked about keeping horses interest peaked without panic setting in, I thought about how I often went about trying to introduce a horse to something new and scary.  I set out to experiment a little, to get out of my set ideas of how horses “should” be trained and just be a scientist for a little bit.

Peters will present at the Best Horse Practices Summit.

The Bar T Ranch is home to five cows. They live in a field behind the arena.  Sometimes, I think they get a kick out of seeing what sort of trouble they can stir up; they might lie down by the far end of the arena and stand up just as I ride a young horse near them. To the colt, I imagine this looks like a monster just popped up from underground.  Several horses in training have some aversion to the monster end of the arena.

One horse is particularly scared of the cows.  I’ve ridden him around them and worked the cows off him. He’d settle down for the moment, but his deep suspicion lingered and every new day in the arena he’d spot the cows and start snorting and bracing his neck and head like a submarine periscope.

Dr. Peters explained how a horse can vacillate between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In my new mindset of experimentation, I took the colt to the far end of the arena with a bucket of grain and set it right by the fence. The cows, curious and greedy, came running.  At first, the little colt eyed the cows with concern, unable to eat his grain. But after a few minutes he started munching, even with the cows poking their muzzles through the gate.  He lifted his head up out of his bucket and for the first time touched the cows with his own muzzle, then went back to eating.

Grazing is a good way to encourage engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system

After he finished the grain, I worked him on the ground and allowed him to stretch his neck down and sneeze. He let go of his back and walked balanced circles.  I then rode him past the cows for the next hour. He was buttery in my hands and stretchy through his back. From Dr. Peters lectures, I know that the colt had successfully down-regulated, in other words, with that healthy exposure, the horse was now responding less to the stimulus. He was no longer concerned about the cows and more interested in paying attention to me and having his body be aligned.

Read more about the comfort zone here.

I had another insight when working with my mare, Dee. For a long time, she has struggled with crossing Bar T Ranch’s tippy bridge obstacle.

Following the seminar, I had a new strategy to try:

I let Dee graze by the bridge for a while. She was able to be comfortable near it and engage her parasympathetic nervous system (“Rest and Digest”). She eyed the bridge while she chewed grass and hung out. Then I asked her to cross it. Success!

Dr. Peters reminded me that it’s not really about the food. “It is about managing where the horse is within its nervous system and less about the food. We are just using the food to activate the parasympathetic nervous system,” said Peters.

Now I’m realizing that I have no reason to hold on to old beliefs and habits that don’t serve the horse.  Learning new things can challenge my belief system. This is good! I urge you to be a scientist and a horseman.  Use your eyes, ears, and mind always.  Don’t just believe what you’re told:  think, compare, observe, and experiment.  You owe it to your horse.

Skinner heads to Maine next month to teach lessons.

Watch what happens after Dee is allowed to graze before tackling an obstacle.

“Fake News” affects Horse Owners, too

As a journalist of many years, I think I struggle more than the average person when accusations of “fake news” and “alternative facts” splash across our daily readings.

For me, the attack is not just on “liberal news outlets” but on media and the propagation of information in general. It’s an attack on journalism’s very basic mission to fairly inform readers, listeners, and viewers.

Brett Ingraham

It’s also hits home because I’ve heard it before:

Years ago, NickerNews was on the forefront of reporting one of the largest animal cruelty cases that Maine had ever seen. The website posted many stories about Brett and Alexis Ingraham, a couple in Clinton running “Fair Play Farm.” (An incongruous name if ever there was one.)

NickerNews assisted the District Attorney’s office when it asked for help with collecting information and witness testimony. After 15 horses as well as other animals were removed from the Ingrahams’ possession, NickerNews updated readers on the status of the case. Eventually, the couple was convicted.

The Ingrahams did not appreciate the coverage and called it untrue and “fake news.”

Then and now, readers must engage and ask ourselves important questions about the source of the information, the evidence to support stated assertions, and the track record of the news outlet. This reader responsibility is not unlike the prudence necessary for evaluating science reports as explained here in this article on the evidence-based model.

Horses seized from Ingraham Farm, 2010

Some additional questions to ask ourselves:

— If we only listen to the news that makes us feel good, how do we grow?

— If journalists only write about approved topics with supportive bias, how is the reader (and therefore the greater society) helped?

— If we, as journalists and as readers are not encouraged to ask questions, think critically, and occasionally argue, what’s the point of having a thinking brain and living in a community?

Whether we’re looking for good horse information or good news information, we should be encouraged to dig deep, look for the sources’ angles, and weigh alternative points of view. We should be aware of conflicts of interests and ulterior motives. Abusers, people with something to hide, vested parties all routinely blame the messengers.

The mission here at NickerNews and BestHorsePractices is to help owners and riders improve horses’ lives. We value transparency and objectivity. We appreciate discourse and love hearing from readers.

Thanks for your support!

“Fit” is More than Skin-Deep: Confessions of a Sugar-holic

Last year, in the pages of NickerNews and BestHorsePractices, we focused on rider fitness and weight. That’s because there is mounting evidence showing we do our horses and our horsemanship a sizeable favor by being fit and on weight.

As it happens, I know a lot of fit, athletic riders. These men and women run the gamut:

  • They are ranchers with no college education
  • They are white collar, weekend riders
  • They are professional clinicians.
  • They are high level dressage riders

As they step effortlessly into the saddle and nurture a healthy, relaxed connection with their horses, they share one invisible flaw: a Western diet. It’s high in fat and sugar and even in folks who are fit and athletic, it can have a negative impact.

How do I know?

I’m one of them. For years, I justified a bad diet with the smugness of being fit and active. For scrutiny’s sake, my fitness is defined here:

— 5’7,”135 pounds

— Daily aerobic exercise (hiking, horse work, etc)

–Daily strength exercise (ranch work supplemented with gym time)

I’ve also justified an American grab-and-go meal attitude, telling myself I was too busy and apathetic to make a healthier sit-down meal, like a hearty salad or something with vegetables. Common culprits in my diet (followed by rationale):

— PayDay bars (hey, they have peanuts)

— Donut for breakfast (hey, I’ll burn them off by lunch)

— Cereal and yogurt instead of a real meal (hey, the cereal has vitamins and I’m a woman so I need the calcium)

— Dessert after every meal

Dr. Steve Peters

But as Dr. Steve Peters would like to remind me, even crummy diets camouflaged by fit bodies can impact our health. This study reported that even lean individuals drinking as little as one soda per day increase their risk of getting diabetes by 18 percent. Fruit juice is not an innocent substitute since it is still high in sugar.

These studies reports the impact a Western diet can have on your aging, on your brain health, and emotional health.

At Intermountain Health in Utah, Dr. Peters has given scores of presentations that connect healthy eating with healthy aging and brain activity. He advocates a vegan diet. So does the huge health conglomerate Kaiser Permanente. Read their directive to doctors and patients here.

But frankly I cannot stomach veganism or stay fortified all day without something more than plants. I talked with my doctor who was, thankfully, not so hard core. He urged a modified Mediterranean diet that includes some dairy and meat. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and beans, should rule my days, the doctor said.

But change is hard.

One of the most impactful books I’ve read lately is the Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It’s helped me understand the importance of doing things right the first time and the challenge of undoing the wrong thing.

The concept, of course, is applicable to a lot of horsemanship:


Colt Starting

Equine Rescue

Life-Long Learning

It’s also relevant to reshaping food intake after decades of unhealthy practices. I know, for instance, that my craving for something sweet is physiological, psychological, and neurological. The cravings and indulgences aren’t just weaknesses. They are neural pathways which end in that satisfying release of dopamine. In other words, it feels good to have a cookie. Healthier habits are actually about carving new neural pathways. Grabbing a cookie is my mind’s fast track; not grabbing a cookie is bushwhacking through the wilderness in neurological terms.

Maddy Butcher

Self-reform has been a blend of tricks and mindfulness. Some strategies:

  • Taking the dogs for a walk right after a meal
  • Buying better coffee that doesn’t need sweetener
  • Eating graham crackers instead of fat- and sugar-laden cookies (most graham crackers have only a few grams of sugar and almost zero fat)
  • If I can resist buying it in the first place, then temptations are simply out of reach. This is simple if, like me, you live miles and miles from the nearest store.

I’m a work in progress. But as Julie Kenney has so articulately written, we all are. I no longer eat entire rolls of Life Savers in one sitting or sneak whole cans of frosting out of the cupboard, like I did as a kid. I’m a grown-up and am finally trying to take nutrition seriously.

Favorite Reads of 2016

We asked a few contributors for their favorite reads of 2016. Here’s what they picked:

Emily Luciano, occasional guest columnist and director of Lucky Dee Communications

Emily Thomas Luciano

Less is More

Feel Defined

Amy Skinner on Self Carriage

Amy Skinner on Guiding

WiseAssWallace on Gear

Amy Skinner, frequent guest columnist and owner of Essence Horsemanship

Wise Ass Wallace videos

Focus on Fitness articles

Amy Skinner

Katrin Silva’s feature on contact

Use Mental not Mechanical Gear

Creating Self Confidence in your Horse

Julie Kenney, Focus on Fitness guest columnist

Amy Skinner on Education versus Learning

Julie Kenney

Katrin Silva’s feature on contact

Wise Ass Wallace videos

Amy Skinner’s Drop Rotten Routines article

Amy Skinner’s Pitfalls of Training article

Dr. Steve Peters, author Evidence-Based Horsemanship and occasional guest columnist:

The Case for Cowboys

Steve Peters

Greed in Full View

Mustang Emergency and How We Got Here

Use Mental not Mechanical Gear

Another Call against Cross Ties

Creating Self Confidence in your Horse

Wise Ass Wallace

Stay in the Flow, by Shelley Appleton

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